Not because I don’t want to embarrass the backwards locals who most definitely deserve it, but because I suspect that there, like everywhere, there are good, well-read, higher thinking people who would not want to be lumped in with the illiterate bottom-feeders. And nobody likes a flame war.
But it really happened, and while this is not a Wal-Mart bashing post (I’m not just a story teller, I’m a shopper), it happened at a Wal-Mart.
One spring day, having traveled home to visit our folks, my wife, Gina, and I were going back home to South Carolina when one of the heaviest, wettest snowstorms ever to land in the Smoky Mountains plopped right across the roadway in front of us, forcing us into a last minute stay at a last-chance motel.
Stuck for several days.
After reading everything we’d brought along—and this is the end of the trip, remember—we set off into town to find some books.
We assumed the local Wal-Mart would have something to offer. Didn’t our store back home have a regular rack of new paperbacks? Didn’t they at least carry a few consumer magazines? We had the time and the money and the inclination to pick up just about anything. And we found nothing. Nada. Zilch. No book rack. No magazine stand.
So I stopped a nice looking young lady and asked, “Do you have any books or magazines?”
And she looked at me with the kind of haughty distaste an earthworm might muster when faced with a working ant at the picnic.
She said, “We really don’t got much call for books around here.”
No lie, gang. That’s what she said. Exact words.
Obviously a need, judging by the contingent of slope-brow rock heads surrounding us, but no call.
Man, that left a bad taste in my mouth. Nearly twenty years later, and I can still work myself into a lather. Because, see, I grew up in the middle of nowhere, myself. Even more nowhere than this tiny kudzu covered town in the sticks. In Bloomfield, Nebraska, there was no Wal-Mart, but by gum there was a call for books!
The Corner Drug Store, the two story brick edifice built by E.L. Weindant in the summer of 1916 and owned and operated by my great aunt and uncle from 1923 to 1944, and still going strong in the early ‘70s, was the central nucleus of my orbit. The photo above was taken during its heyday in the ‘30s.
They had books. Hardbacks and paperbacks of all kinds. Kid stuff, teenage stuff, adult stuff (like the Belmont Tower westerns with a glossy cigarette ad bound into the center, a true clue to forbidden fruit).
There were comics from Archie and Charlton and Gold Key, with Marvel and DC commanding most of the lower shelf. Marvel eventually took to the more grown-up rated top shelf too with black & white monster mags –stronger stuff with the four color fare acting as an entry drug. There was even sheet music for sale!
For a dozen years (ages 6 to 18), I built a collection of literary ephemera Ackerman or Bradbury, if not my high-school English teacher, would’ve praised. Some of it I bought and took home. A lot of it I was allowed to sit and read in the store.
I’m looking over some of it now, can even tell you stories about specific pieces. (I bought that particular issue of Dracula Lives! one day after school. That MAD papberback? Got it on a Saturday night the week of Christmas, 1974.)
Sometimes, I still dream about the place. The smell, the choices, the stuff I read, the stuff I missed and haven’t ever seen again.
Everywhere, kids are growing up with smart phones and the Internet. But in some places, there’s no book rack.
There’s absolutely no chance to build a collection of old paper. There’s no series of memories to integrate a childhood.
There’s no chance to dream.